Lancaster Mk.VII  NX611  Just Jane

 

The Lancaster that was to eventually become Just Jane was built as NX611 at the Austin Motors Longbridge works in April 1945 - the third aircraft off the line as part of an order for 150 Lancaster B.VIIs destined to join the RAF’s thirty squadron strong TIGER FORCE, for operations in the Far East against the Japanese.

Following the Japanese surrender the TIGER FORCE was disbanded and the newly built Lancasters were consigned to storage at 38 MU, Llandow. NX611 remained there until April 1952, when she was sold for a reputed £50,000 as part of a batch of 54 Lancaster's to the French Government.

Under a Western Union agreement, the French Navy (L’Aeronavale) was to supplement RAF patrols of the Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes. NX611 was converted to Maritime Reconnaissance standard by Avro’s at Woodford and collected by a French ferry crew on 30th May 1952. By now painted midnight blue and coded WU15, further modifications included the removal of the mid upper turret, the fitting of an airborne lifeboat and the provision of ASV radar.

 

 

For the next ten years WU15 served from a number of bases in Brittany and Morocco, and with a number of Flottilles and Escadrilles such as 10F, 24F, 25F, 52S, 55S and 9S. In November 1962 WU15 underwent an overhaul and was repainted white prior to service in New Caledonia, a French Island around 1000 miles east of Australia. WU15 was operated by Escadrille de Servitude 9S from Noumeau, one of three Lancaster's carrying out patrols, air sea rescue, communications and liaison duties across a wide area of the south Pacific. Interestingly, during her time with the French WU15 also participated in an ammunition transportation sortie in Indo-China.   

 

After two years’ service the three Lancasters at Noumeau were withdrawn from service and replaced with the Douglas DC-4 and Lockheed Neptune, due to high maintenance costs and a shortage of spares. Meanwhile, 13,000 miles away in the UK, the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society (HAPS) had enquired about the possibility of acquiring one of these Lancaster's for preservation. After a lengthy wait without any response, the French authorities contacted the society - not only did they offer to donate a Lancaster, but they would also deliver it as far as Australia or New Zealand.

 

Hasty arrangements were made by HAPS and in August 1964, WU15 touched down in Australia at Bankstown, near Sydney. Before WU15 could be returned to the UK she needed a thorough overhaul followed by a test flight. At least £10,000 was required and financial aid was kindly provided by the RAF, the RAAF, the Hawker Siddeley Group, Shell Petroleum and Qantas (who loaned vital radio equipment for the flight to the UK). Funds were also donated by holidaymakers on Sydney’s beaches and from aviation enthusiasts around the globe.

 

Following the required overhaul and test flight, WU15 was repositioned to Mascot, also near Sydney, in readiness for the lengthy flight to the UK. Although still carrying the white paint scheme, roundels and badges from French service the registration was changed to G-ASXX. A 400 gallon fuel tank was installed in the bomb bay, adding to the usual 2,154 gallon wing tank capacity.

 

 

 

On 25th April G-ASXX took off from Mascot and started her 12,000 mile journey to the UK. The sponsorship badges and 'zaps' that appeared on the aircraft’s nose grew in number with every landing on the route to the UK – Coolangatta, Amberley, Darwin, Changi, Butterworth (escorted on departure by an RAF Victor and Canberra plus RAAF Sabres), Calcutta, Karachi, Bahrain, Akrotiri, Istres and finally Biggin Hill. 

After 19 days and 70 hours of flying time, on 13th May 1965, the Lancaster arrived safely at Biggin Hill – fittingly her crew comprised of serving or retired RAAF members, many of whom had served as Lancaster aircrew during the war. By this point total air time from new was 2,411 hours. The Air Registration Board promptly grounded G-ASXX; the number of flying hours allowed for one engine and propeller had expired, so restoration work commenced. All parts were carefully examined and where necessary restored to an airworthy condition.

The white paint was stripped back to bare metal and a RAF night bomber black & camouflage scheme was applied. The original RAF serial NX611 was reapplied and the code letters HA-P added; an authentic WWII Lancaster unit code (218 Sqn) that also represented the owners, the Historic Aircraft Preservation Society. The Lancaster was subsequently named 'Guy Gibson' and after two years of hard work her first post re-certification flight took place on 6th May 1967.

 

 

The Royal Air Force’s Lancaster, PA474 was by now airworthy and as a result HAPS were unable to find enough sponsors to keep NX611 flying - prohibitive costs at an estimated £2000 - £3000 per hour finally resulted in HAPS handing over its assets to Reflectaire Ltd, which in turn was given notice to leave Biggin Hill.

Since her return to the UK, NX611 had only flown 14 times, piloted by Neil Williams with Eric Hughes assisting as navigator. The 30th March saw NX611 relocated to the former USAAF airfield at Lavenham in Suffolk. Shortly afterwards the code letters HA-P were replaced by GL-C in honour of Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC DSO DFC who had recently visited the airfield, performing a taxi run in NX611 whilst there.

Attempts to lease the airfield were in vain so once again NX611 was forced to move, this time temporarily to Hullavington in Wiltshire on 7th February 1970. Richard Todd, the actor who played Guy Gibson in the 1953 film 'The Dambusters' was onboard recording commentary for a TV programme.

Once at Hullavington a re-paint was in order and an inspection was carried out by Rolls Royce and Hawker Siddeley. To mark the aircraft’s 25th birthday a silver '25 years' motif was added behind the bomb-aimers blister. On 26th June 1970 NX611 took off from Hullavington for her very last flight – to Squires Gate Airport, Blackpool, where an aviation museum was being planned with the Lancaster as the main attraction.

It had been hoped to maintain NX611 in flying condition but in the end this was not achievable. During October 1971 the guns were removed (deemed a security risk) by a specialist from the BAC’s factory at nearby Warton. The museum attracted much interest, however revenue was not sufficient and liquidation followed. NX611 was put up for auction, as lot 63, on 29th April 1972 but was withdrawn because she failed to draw enough interest and bids were too low. However two days later she was sold privately to a bidder, the Rt. Hon Lord Lilford of Nateby, who hoped to keep her in Britain. The engines had been run up for the auction and there were hopes that it might still fly again. However, having stood out for two years in Blackpool's salty sea air, without care, events had to move quickly to prevent her from ending up as scrap. NX611 was dismantled and moved to Scampton, where a deal had been struck for her to serve as a gate guard for the next ten years. The task of dismantling NX611 and moving her to Scampton took until the spring of 1974 to complete. Operating alongside 617 Sqn at Scampton during this period was 230 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), and as 617 Sqn was mentioned on the port side, the OCU crest was added to the starboard side.

The Lancaster was well looked after at Scampton, and displayed with wartime weaponry such as the famous UPKEEP bouncing bomb, the 12,000lb TALLBOY and 22,000lb GRAND SLAM. The Station Flight YF code was added, along with red painted propeller spinners.

 

By early 1983 the Lancaster’s ten year period at Scampton was coming to an end and Lord Lilford was ready to sell her. The purchase price had risen however, now to a six figure sum. Fred and Harold Panton made an offer – it was accepted, however NX611 remained at Scampton for a further four years until July 1987, to allow her new home at East Kirkby to be prepared for her arrival. Dismantling and re-assembly took 13 weeks by a team of 11 personnel from RAF Abingdon.

During 1990 NX611 was surveyed and found to be in excellent condition with both the airframe and engines appearing sound. The name Just Jane was applied to the port side, inspired by a popular 1940s newspaper comic strip character. The crest of Bomber Command was initially worn on the starboard side, with the City of Sheffield crest appearing later in remembrance of the residents of the City who experienced the Luftwaffe's Blitz raids during the winter of 1940, and to honour of City’s  steel works that provided many parts for the Lancaster, its Merlin engines and the weapons it would carry.

Word spread quickly of developments at East Kirkby; the sight and sound of a 'live' Lancaster brought praise from many appreciative Bomber Command veterans who valued this link to the past. A few months later the second engine was successfully restored and started. The gathered crowds were thrilled to hear the sound of a flying Lancaster heading in their direction, and PA474 from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight flew over to salute its new neighbour.

Following the success of running Just Jane  on two engines, it was time for another exciting step to be taken – a short taxy run on three engines. Saturday 22nd April 1995 was the day chosen to celebrate  Just Jane's 50th birthday – and the first public taxy run.

 

The fourth engine was restored and started on 13th July 1995 – East Kirkby now had an operational Lancaster representing the wartime era. It had taken just 13 months, albeit 13 months of hard work, to turn a static airframe into a living memorial to the 55,000 fallen of Bomber Command.

In February 2001 NX611 performed her first fast run, with the tail wheel lifting clear of the ground for the first time since 1971. This was also the first time a Lancaster had been seen on one of East Kirkby’s runways since around 1946!

This amazing sight took place on behalf of the BBC who featured the Lancaster in the two part drama 'Night Flight' – starring Christopher Plummer and Edward Woodward as WWII veterans whose memories of Bomber Command Operations still haunted them. The fictitious Squadron codes CM-V were applied to NX611 and the Just Jane nose art was temporarily taped over whilst filming was underway.

 

During 2006, the nose art was revised; previously Just Jane had worn a red one piece bathing suit, but the this was revised to show a WWII era bikini clad 'Jane', as worn by the original Daily Mail newspaper comic strip character. The Sqn codes commemorate East Kirkby’s two wartime Lancaster Sqns, with the 57 Sqn DX represented on the starboard side and 630 Sqn’s LE on the port side - were also outlined in yellow. In tribute to Christopher Panton, a skull and crossbones motif was also added to the rear turret, as originally carried on his Halifax during WWII.

The last major addition to the markings carried by NX611 took place in 2010. A Lancaster profile was added to the nose, port side, just behind the bomb aimers position. Entitled '65 1945-2010' it marked the aircraft's 65th birthday.

For the record, 57 Sqn's DX-C was LM517 and became the longest serving Lancaster with the Sqn; LE-C with 630 Sqn was ND554 'Conquering Cleo'.

 

Sadly Fred Panton passed away on the 9th June 2013. The Panton family subsequently made the decision that now was a suitable time for a joint tribute to be made for the efforts of brothers Fred and Harold in rescuing and maintaining NX611.

 

As described above. for over 25 years NX611 had worn the aircraft letter ‘C’, with the wartime codes of DX- (57 Sqn) and LE- (630 Sqn). It was therefore decided to change the aircraft code letters to ‘F’ on the starboard side and ‘H’ on the port side. Both codes are also historically correct having been allocated to wartime Lancasters operating from East Kirkby, with details given HERE.

NX611 was offically rolled out in her new colours on 29th March 2014.


 

 

The superb profiles featured above are generously provided by Garry Fenton of

GRF Aviation Art Profiles.